Jon and Lissa Kaplan during the repair of the "Familant Torah," which will soon depart Palo Alto for Israel.
Jon and Lissa Kaplan during the repair of the "Familant Torah," which will soon depart Palo Alto for Israel.

‘Survivor’ Torah scroll will journey from Palo Alto to Israel this summer

Congregation Etz Chayim will be passing a “survivor Torah” — a scroll that survived the Holocaust in Europe — to a rabbi in Israel this summer, marking the next chapter in the life of a Torah with a long and storied history.

The Torah, which has been with the independent congregation in Palo Alto since 2005, will be delivered by Etz Chayim Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky to Rabbi Lila Veissid in Emek Hefer, Israel.

Veissid is a regional rabbi, meaning she serves not one congregation but all of Emek Hefer, an area of central Israel north of Netanya. Originally from Argentina, Veissid was trained at Hebrew College, a pluralistic rabbinical school and Jewish studies graduate institute in Newton, Massachusetts.

Veissid found herself in need of a Torah after backlash from an Orthodox group new to the region that disapproved of her use of a loaner Torah because she is a woman, and because she was using it to help young women become bat mitzvahs. The group worked to have her access to the Torah revoked.

Koritzinsky learned of Veissid’s situation when he visited her kibbutz in 2019; the two attended Hebrew College together. He returned later that year with a group of congregants eager to hear Veissid’s story and offer help.

“On the bus right after, we came up with this idea,” Koritzinsky said. “Is there a possibility that we could actually support her by lending her one of our sacred Torahs?”

Rabbi Lila Veissid and Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky during Congregation Etz Chayim’s 2019 trip to Israel. (Photo/Ted Schachter)
Rabbi Lila Veissid and Rabbi Chaim Koritzinsky during Congregation Etz Chayim’s 2019 trip to Israel. (Photo/Ted Schachter)

The “Familant Torah,” as Koritzinsky calls it, has had a long journey. Originating from Poland, it was used at a synagogue in Wiesbaden, Germany, led by Rabbi Jonah Ansbacher. When the synagogue was set on fire in 1938 during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the Torah was saved and kept hidden for many years. It resurfaced in the early 1970s in San Francisco, where Ansbacher’s son, Rabbi Joseph Asher, led Congregation Emanu-El from 1967 to 1986.

During that time, Rabbi Charles Familant was directing Hillel at Stanford, where he held the first Jewish services at the university. In 1975, after a decade on the job, he retired to become a “freelance rabbi,” officiating at b’nai mitzvahs and religious services for unaffiliated families. During the 1970s and ’80s, Familant says he was one of a few American rabbis performing interfaith marriages for couples whose unions were not recognized under Jewish law.

Without a congregation or pulpit, Familant practiced without a dedicated Torah, until he received a phone call one day from Asher. The San Francisco rabbi had heard Familant was in need of a Torah, and said he had one for him. It was not until the two men met in person that Familant understood the gravity of the gift.

“I said, you’re gonna trust me with this? And he said, you, I trust,” Familant, 89, told J. in a recent interview. “It brings tears to my eyes.”

Familant used the Torah for the rest of his career before passing it on to Rabbi Ari Cartun, who directed the Hillel for more than 20 years and then became Etz Chayim’s spiritual leader. When Cartun retired in 2015, Koritzinsky came on board.

Koritzinsky and 15 congregants will travel to Israel in July to pass the Torah to Veissid in a ceremony. Until recently, the Torah was pasul — unfit for ritual use — as it had been damaged, but it has since been repaired and made kosher to prepare for its journey to Israel. The Torah is on a long-term loan, with the stipulation that Veissid will contact Etz Chayim if she ever wants to pass on or return the Torah.

“I feel very moved,” Koritzinsky said. “I feel blessed that we have this opportunity to create a deeper connection with a community with … my colleague, with Torah at the heart of this connection. Torah has been at the heart of our communities for thousands of years.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA/MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.